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It's not the best shomen out there—not the fanciest or well decorated or grandest. It is "Ai Ki Do" calligraphy, signed by the artist, resting in a simple wooden frame. It's not even permanently fixed, as we share our dojo with wrestlers and sometimes out-of-town sports visitors of the private high school in which we're situated. In a given week, it would come off and on the wall many times to either accommodate our aikido training or make room for the wrestlers who also frequent the gym. But our shomen has been there for as long as I have joined the dojo, and its presence stretches back as far as when the now-yudansha were still wearing their white belts. Captured in photographs from the past, it stands slightly out-of-focus, regal and serene, like an observer in the background presiding over all our belt tests across time.
One Saturday, our morning class was booted to training outdoors as some out-of-town visitors practiced wrestling in the gym. After they left, we discovered that someone in their crew had taken our shomen with him. It was a tiny thing, but its absence was literally and figuratively an emptiness in the room. Not only did it serve as a reference point for our line-up and bow-in, it was my focal point when I first started. I tried to shake off the wrestling-room décor and the bizarre Biblical quote painted on the far wall to adapt the "empty cup" zen mentality more conducive to my aikido. I studied the characters, I memorized the strokes. I tried to visua
One of my Senseis has a favorite saying that he sometimes uses to conclude class: "Practice the aikido that cannot be seen." After the first few times I heard him say it, I pondered over the meaning, wondering what philosophical lesson I was supposed to get from it. There is a spiritual aspect to aikido, deeply rooted in religious lessons and aphorisms from where the founder, Morehei Ueshiba, gleaned inspiration for the martial art.
One night, I approached my Sensei and asked what he meant by "the aikido that cannot be seen." Instead of giving me a straight answer, he thought for a moment, and then he launched into a story about being in a restaurant when the waitress set down a cup of cream that started hydroplaning across the table's surface, only to be caught by my Sensei before it skidded off the edge. The waitress, perplexed at the speed of which everything happened, asked my Sensei how he caught it so fast, to which he responded, "I was waiting for it."
Sensei saw my still-quizzical expression, so he told another story of when he took the longer path to where he needed to go by walking around some band members practicing instead of cutting directly through them, "to avoid conflict," he added. I was sitting there, thinking about how I had accidentally punched a bee smack across the body that afternoon at lunch because it had caught me by surprise, suddenly buzzing loudly near my ear before I had a chance to react otherwise. I wondered if that counted as "the aikid